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Uber looks to the skies

Uber has launched a ‘flying car’ project called Uber Elevate, which it hopes will be ready to take off in the US by 2020.

In a white paper published in 2016, Uber had said it would create a network of on-demand, fully electric aircraft that take off and land vertically.

“Essentially what we want to create (through Uber Elevate) is not only an Uber on the ground but also an Uber in the sky,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told a press event in New Delhi last month.

“They will be safe, they will be quieter, we are talking to manufacturers right now, and we are talking to cities about how you have to build this technology to be safe, what kind of air route can you create, from city centres to airports etc. Ultimately it is very much in the interest of a number of cities to solve congestion problems and create high-speed quarters for travel within their cities,” says Khosrowshahi.

This week the technology giant plans to host officials including Donald Trump’s transport chief, and the head of America’s airspace watchdog, at a summit in Los Angeles, at which it hopes to establish itself as a leader in urban flight. Uber has already hired senior Nasa and aerospace employees to deliver chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi’s plans.

The projected time frame for delivering the flying vehicles and for building physical and technological networks to support them is a mere five years. They would initially be human-piloted vehicles–but per Uber’s sales pitch, would evolve into fully autonomous ride-sharing flyers. 

Uber is not alone in the race. At least 19 companies are also developing flying-car plans, according to The Verge. These include manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus, and small startups like Kitty Hawk, who were testing their flying vehicles in Christchurch, New Zealand earlier this year. Meanwhile, Uber has made significant strides in partnering with a handful of aircraft manufacturers, real estate firms, and regulators to better its chances of developing a fully functional, on-demand flying taxi service. 



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Self-driving cars on the rise

LiDAR sensor on one of Uber’s autonomous vehicles

ABI Researcha market-foresight advisory firm, forecasts eight million consumer vehicles shipping in 2025 will feature autonomous or semi-autonomous capabilities. 

This eight million figure is part of a larger report published by ABI about Advanced Driver Assistance Systems. The number encompasses vehicles that will feature Level 3 and 4 technologies, where drivers will still be necessary but are able to completely transfer safety-critical functions to the vehicle and Level 5 technology, where no driver will be required at all. 

This also means that shipments of Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) sensors that are required for autonomous cars will increase rapidly. “As many as 36 million LiDAR units are expected to ship in 2025, corresponding to a market value of NZ$9.9 billion.”

How did ABI land on a figure of eight million?

ABI extrapolated data from the past few years. Up until recently, Level 1 autonomous technology was only available with high-end luxury cars. Now, companies like Ford, Toyota, Subaru, and many others, are making Level 1 tech such as adaptive cruise control, blind spot detection, and automatic braking available across all of their lineups.

ABI predicts that these cars will up the demand for technology like LiDAR sensors. As a response, sensor manufacturers will then produce them more efficiently, which will then cause the price of LiDAR sensors to go down, and make affordable autonomous technology more feasible for automakers. 

“With the rapid development and deployment of various Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems (ADAS) packages by manufacturers, higher level automation represents the next suitable step,” says Shiv Patel, Research Analyst at ABI Research. “The primary functional sensor gap between today’s ADAS and higher level autonomous vehicles will be filled with the addition of LiDAR, which will help to provide reliable obstacle detection and Simultaneous Location and Mapping.”

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Uber believes AVs have a future

Uber Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi said on Wednesday that the ride-sharing company still believes in using autonomous technology after one of its self-driving vehicles was involved in a fatal crash in Arizona.

A pedestrian was killed after being hit by a self-driving Uber vehicle, resulting in the company to suspend testing of autonomous vehicles.

The accident has sparked conversations in the car industry about the apparent lack of safety standards for autonomous vehicles.

“We believe in it,” said Khosrowshahi, speaking at a transport forum, adding that Uber has always considered autonomous vehicles being “part of the solution.”

The company’s interest in investing in bike sharing and public transit should not be interpreted as a move away from self-driving cars, he added.

Arizona’s governor suspended Uber’s ability to test self-driving cars on public roads in the state following the crash.

Arizona had been key part of Uber’s autonomous project. About half of the company’s 200 self-driving cars and a staff of hundreds were located there. 

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Uber to invest heavily in Australia

Uber is investing heavily in Australia’s ride-hailing industry, according to a senior executive at the tech firm.

Ride-sharing has had good adoption in Australia and there’s competition from local rival GoCatch and other firms, like India’s Ola, who are planning to enter the market, Henry Greenacre, general manager for Australia and New Zealand at Uber, told CNBC.

Uber also said that it was expanding its presence in the country by launching its carpooling service, Uber Pool, in Sydney on April 3.

“We’re investing really heavily in Australia,” Greenacre said. “We think ride-sharing has had great adoption here but we think there’s still a huge amount of space for us to grow, and by investing in something like Uber Pool, we’re investing heavily in that. We think that product will stand on its own two feet relatively quickly.”

Currently there are more than 85,000 Uber drivers in Australia.

However, the firm’s losses surged 61 per cent in 2017 to US$4.5 billion, though its loss in the fourth quarter narrowed from the prior period.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is now focused on cleaning up the company’s battered reputation and instilling financial discipline to push toward profitability. 

When asked if he thought Uber was struggling in emerging markets, Greenacre said Uber has a “thriving business” in places like India and the Middle East. Yet, Indian media recently reported that Japan’s SoftBank, which is an investor in Uber and India’s Ola, could be pushing for a merger between the two firms in the future.

“Dara, our CEO, has come out and said we will continue to invest really heavily in those types of areas, as well as invest heavily in our more core markets and Australia is one of those markets,” Greenacre said.

“What he has also made clear is that we need to show a path to profitability and a path to IPO and this is all part of that,” he added.

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Uber doesn’t plan to renew self driving permit

The news comes less than two weeks after a self-driving Uber SUV struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona. After the tragedy, the company halted testing of its self-driving cars on roads in North America.

Uber has a self-driving permit in California until March 31 – and the company said it will let the permit expire.

“We decided to not reapply for a California DMV permit with the understanding that our self-driving vehicles would not operate on public roads in the immediate future,” an Uber spokesperson said in a statement to CNN.

Uber’s statement comes after several news outlets obtained a letter sent by DMV deputy director and chief counsel Brian Soublet to Uber’s public affairs manager, Austin Heyworth on Tuesday regarding its permit.

Soublet wrote that if and when Uber applies for a new autonomous vehicle testing permit, it will “need to address any follow-up analysis or investigations from the recent crash in Arizona an may also require a meeting with the department.”

The Tempe Police Department and the National Transportation Safety Board have launched investigations into the crash.

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Govt. officials put the brakes on self-driving vehicles

More than a week after an Uber self-driving car struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona, government officials and technology firms have begun reconsidering their deployment of the autonomous technology due to fears it may not be ready for public testing.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey banned Uber’s self-driving cars from the state’s roads Monday, stating he was “very disturbed” by police video showing the fatality.

The ban was limited to Uber, but held special significance because Ducey had previously welcomed Uber’s testing in the state by pitting Arizona’s comparatively relaxed regulatory framework to neighbouring California.

In a letter to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi on Monday, Ducey said he was suspending the company’s self-driving tests until further notice, calling the video “disturbing and alarming” and explaining that it “raises many questions about the ability of Uber to continue testing in Arizona.”

 “Improving public safety has always been the emphasis of Arizona’s approach to autonomous vehicle testing, and my expectation is that public safety is also the top priority for all who operate this technology in the state of Arizona,” Ducey told Khosrowshahi in his letter. “The incident that took place on March 18 is an unquestionable failure to comply with this expectation.”

A spokesman for the governor said the ban would last indefinitely.

“We want to see the results of the pending investigations before making any further decisions,” the spokesman said. Pressed on why Uber was the only company whose self-driving operations were ordered suspended, the spokesman, Patrick Ptak, said it was because “there are currently three investigations into the company’s accident and technology.” Several technology firms and automakers are testing self-driving vehicles in the state, which does not require special permits.

Uber has already voluntarily suspended autonomous vehicle testing across North America in the wake of the crash.

Computer chip-maker Nvidia also suspended its autonomous vehicle tests on Tuesday amid the investigations into the Uber crash, Nvidia spokesman Fazel Adabi said. Nvidia supplies computing technology for Uber’s self-driving cars, including for the same model involved in last week’s crash, and is testing self-driving cars in California and New Jersey, among other locations.


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Uber had issues prior to crash

One of Uber’s autonomous cars

Uber’s self-driving vehicle project was not living up to expectations months before a self-driving car operated by the company struck and killed a woman in Arizona, USA.

The cars were having trouble driving through construction zones and next to tall vehicles, with Uber’s human back up drivers having to intervene far more frequently than the drivers of competing autonomous car projects.

Waymo, formerly the self-driving car project of Google, said that in tests on roads in California last year, its cars went an average of nearly 9,000 km before the driver had to take control from the computer to steer out of trouble. 

As of March, Uber was struggling to meet its target of 20 km per “intervention” in Arizona, according to company documents obtained by The New York Times and two people familiar with the company’s operations in the Phoenix area but not permitted to speak publicly about it.

There was also mounting pressure to live up to a goal to offer a driverless car service by the end of the year and to impress top executives.

Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s chief executive, was expected to visit Arizona in April, and leaders of the company’s development group in the Phoenix area wanted to give him a glitch-free ride in an autonomous car.

Tech companies like Uber, Waymo and Lyft, as well as automakers like General Motors and Toyota, have spent billions developing self-driving cars in the belief that the market for them could one day be worth trillions of dollars.

On Monday, Uber halted autonomous car tests in Arizona, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto. It is not clear when the company will revive them.

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What the Uber fatality reveals

The tragedy of the first fatal collision between an autonomous vehicle and a pedestrian points to a potential vulnerability with the emerging technology now being tested on the open roads.

While self-driving vehicles can reliably see their surroundings using sophisticated sensors and cameras, the software doesn’t always understand what it detects.

New details have been released about Uber’s autonomous vehicle that struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona, which indicate that neither the self-driving system nor the human safety driver behind the wheel hit the brakes when she apparently stepped off a median and onto the roadway, according to an account the Tempe police chief gave to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The human driver told police he didn’t see the pedestrian coming, and the autonomous system behaved as if it hadn’t either.

“The real challenge is you need to distinguish the difference between people and cars and bushes and paper bags and anything else that could be out in the road environment,” said Matthew Johnson-Roberson, an engineering professor at the University of Michigan who works with Ford Motor Co. on autonomous vehicle research, to BloombergTechnology. “The detection algorithms may have failed to detect the person or distinguish her from a bush.”

After the Uber collision, the car continued traveling at 38 miles per hour, according to the Tempe police chief, and the driver told police he wasn’t aware of the pedestrian until the car collided with her. A police spokeswoman said the speed limit where the accident occurred is 35 mph.

This highlights what Johnson-Roberson describes as a shortcoming in robot reasoning.

“I live in Ann Arbor, a college town,” Johnson-Roberson said. “So on football weekends, when there’s a bunch of drunk college kids, I drive at a lower speed. Those are the kind of human decisions we make to anticipate a situation, and that’s hard with autonomous cars. We’re not there yet.” 

Autonomous vehicles also struggle to master weather elements. Snow, ice and rain can obscure sensors and render the most advanced computing power useless. That’s one reason most self-driving cars are being tested in sunny climates like Arizona and Texas.

The death is a tragedy for her family, and also a public-relations disaster for Uber and other companies that want to test their technology on public roadways. Waymo announced last year it would begin testing vehicles with no backup drivers. 

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Fatality raises safety concerns

One of Uber’s autonomous cars

Automakers and tech companies are evaluating whether or not to suspend their autonomous vehicle programs in the aftermath of the first fatality involving a self-driving vehicle, an accident that has raised safety concerns. 

In reaction to the fatal accident involving an Uber autonomous vehicle, Arizona officials said they do not see an immediate need to modify rules on the testing of self-driving cars in the state.

On Tuesday, Arizona’s director for policy and communications at the state’s department of transportation, Kevin Biesty, said existing regulations were sufficient and that the state had no immediate plans to issue new rules.

“We believe we have enough in our laws right now to regulate automobiles,” Biesty told Reuters. “There will be issues that the legislature will have to address in the future as these become more widespread.”

Meanwhile, both Uber and Toyota Motor Corp said it will pause autonomous vehicle testing following the accident.

Toyota said the incident could have an “emotional effect” on its test drivers: “This ‘timeout’ is meant to give them time to come to a sense of balance about the inherent risks of their jobs.”

The fatal accident is drawing attention to questions about the safety of autonomous vehicle systems, and the challenges of testing them on public streets.

Self-driving cars have been involved in minor accidents, with nearly all of them being blamed on human motorists hitting the autonomous vehicle. 

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Uber moves down South

Ride-sharing company, Uber will expand into Dunedin and Queenstown in the next coming months.

Dunedin and Queenstown will be the sixth and seventh cities in New Zealand to accomodate the ride-sharing company. 

Uber New Zealand general manager Richard Menzies said Uber was exploring options to expand into Otago, almost four years after it was first made available in Auckland.

Locals would have the opportunity to earn extra income by signing up as drivers and the company would be holding information sessions next month, Mr Menzies said.

By expanding into the two locations, Uber was aiming to alleviate pressure on existing taxi services during weekends and major events like rugby games, he said.

Fares and pricing would be set closer to the launch date.

The San Francisco-based company will start advertising for drivers next week and information sessions will be held in Dunedin on April 11 and Queenstown on April 12.

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Self-driving Uber car kills pedestrian

One of Uber’s autonomous cars

In a historic first for the self-driving car industry, a woman in Arizona has died after being hit by a self-driving car, operated by Uber.

It is the first known death of a pedestrian struck by an autonomous vehicle on public roads.

The Uber vehicle was operating in autonomous mode with a human safety driver behind the wheel when it hit the woman.

The woman was crossing the street outside of a crosswalk, according to a statement from Tempe Police.

Uber said it had suspended testing of its self-driving cars in Tempe, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto.

“Our hearts go out to the victim’s family. We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident,” an Uber spokeswoman, Sarah Abboud, said in a statement.

The fatal crash will most likely raise questions about regulations for self-driving cars. 

States are starting to allow companies to test cars without a safety person in the driver’s seat – this month, California said that, it would start allowing companies to test autonomous vehicles without anyone behind the wheel.

Arizona already allows self-driving cars to operate without a driver behind the wheel. The state has promised that it would help keep the driverless car industry free from regulation. Consequently, technology companies have flocked to Arizona to test their self-driving vehicles.

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